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The Stunning Rise in Plastic Surgery Shows a Psychological Crisis
In 2016 Americans spent $16.4 billion on cosmetic plastic surgery. What does that say about the health of our psyche?
Over a billion phones in China are equipped with apps produced by Meitu, Inc. Launched in 2008, the signature app, also named Meitu (“beautiful picture”), is a basic photo-editing program. The inventors originally imagined it as a general-purpose app until they noticed user data. Teenage girls were by far the most engaged audience. Today the company is worth more than $6 billion.
Meitu not only changed the perception of a generation in China, it also gave birth to a specific look: wang hong lian, “Internet-celebrity face.” Executives and users claim it to be an expectable backlash against the lack of individuality demanded by Communism for so long. And yet, critics reply, this has created its own form of uniformity. The average user spends forty minutes doctoring a photo before daring to release it for public inspection. A two-person photo demands at least an hour.
Revenue is in part generated by cosmetic companies brandishing lucrative deals with wang hong elite, as well as by partnering with Meitu, Inc, to virtually stylize and then sell actual product to adoring fans—embedded links make shopping irresistible. But the craze has also created another trend: plastic surgeries in hopes of attaining the perfect “Internet-celebrity face.”
While Jiayang Fan was reporting on Meitu for The New Yorker, she received a free consultation on what it would take to attain a wang hong face. By the end her face “resembled a military map.” The consultation is worth quoting in full, especially considering that Fan was effectively informed that, even with all of this work, she’d never achieve an Internet-worthy face.
My jaw was too square, my cheekbones too broad, and my eyelids too droopy. My nose bowed outward—a “camel hump”—and I had a weak chin. After the half-dozen or so procedures that it would take to ameliorate these flaws, we could move on to smaller things, which could be dealt with by a combination of Botox (for my shrunken forehead, my jaw muscles, and the creeping crow’s-feet around my eyes) and filler (for my temples, the pouches under my eyes, my nasal folds, and my upper lip). The cost would be more than thirty thousand dollars.
Americans also love work. We talk about it all the time: jobs growing the economy, getting this group of workers more work, technology alleviating certain forms of work in this sector, the work we put in at the gym, the work it takes to run a business and family. Yet there’s this other type of work so prominent in our culture, the work we pay for to hide the work we’re not willing to put in: the work associated with a cultural ideal detached from the emotions and psychology of what that work entails.
This sort of work is more psychological than physical—we adore illusions, and any illusion that can temper the ravages of old age are considered to be worth the price. A little work here, some major work there, whatever works to stave off the tragedy of earthly decline. To stay relevant. To stay young.
We might not have Meitu, but Instagram celebrities with mutant bodies claim millions of fans. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons 2016 was its most successful year to date: 290,000 cosmetic breast augmentations; 131,000 face lifts; seven million Botox injections. Only laser hair removal and microdermabrasion were down from the prior year, but even those numbers—1.1 million and 775,000—are staggering.
This trend cuts across all age groups. Once the domain of the aging, now Internet-celebrity faces (and butts and legs and breasts and arms) are available to all. There were 229,000 cosmetic procedures performed on teenagers in 2016, including the fast growing field: male breast reduction. The bulk of surgeries occurred in the 40-54 age group, the bulk of that being minimally invasive touch-ups like Botox.
While 92 percent of patients were female, the 8 percent male ratio marks an increase as well. And the data are cross-cultural: the largest ethnic increase is Asian Americans at 6 percent, followed by Caucasians at 4 percent. There was no one-year change in African Americans, while Hispanic participation dropped by 2 percent. The fear of aging appears democratic even as our society seems less so.
These are one-year statistical increases. Trace over sixteen years and the numbers are even starker: 854 percent increase in Botox injections in women, 376 percent in men; 201 percent increase in buttock lifts in women, 537 percent increase in men; 5075 percent increase in upper arm lifts in women, while lower body lifts in men shot up 363 percent. These data are all regarding cosmetic, not reconstructive, procedures.
Total yearly cost of a little work? $16.4 billion. Projected to rise in 2017.
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire is Kurt Andersen’s exhaustive 500-year history of an America that has produced creationism and reality television and a reality television president, a turn of events he could not even have foreseen when he began work on the book in 2013. He goes to great lengths to show how this detachment from what matters most has slowly, and then quickly, eroded our national conscience over the course of a half-millennium.
Despite the tendency to look back at America’s founding as secular, Andersen documents the superstition that has pervaded this country since the first English immigrants dreamed of discovering the biblical garden of Eden, as well as sizable deposits of gold, in what came to be known as Virginia. The Plymouth Rock group was also seeking gold (and a quicker commute to Asia for trade). The fact that our schools’ textbook narrative has conveniently forgotten that in lieu of religious-freedom-seeking Pilgrims is indicative of our penchant for fantasizing.
One modern manifestation of over overactive imaginations is what Andersen dubs the “Kids ‘R’ Us Syndrome.” Video games, fantasy sports, and adults dressing up for Halloween are products of the Reagan era, which he calls “ranging from the benign to the unfortunate.” He points to Michael Jackson who, while in residence at his fantastical Neverland Ranch, was having cosmetic surgery to look more and more like a child every few months. The nation followed suit.
Around the same time, Andersen continues, the ubiquity of pornography made pubic hair obsolete and drove up the number of breast implants—one in twenty-five American women now have them. As trends become more extreme (like pornography itself), labiaplasty took root in Southern California, often so that a woman’s labia minora would not be noticed when they wore yoga pants.
Americans began saying and wishfully believing about round-numbered ages that X is the new Y—thirty the new twenty, forty the new thirty, fifty the new forty, and so on. Yet in so many ways they all became the new twenty, the new fifteen…we really came to believe we were kids of all ages.
We’ve long dreamed up escapes from organic reality through the invention of mythologies. From King Gilgamesh traveling the globe in search of the sacred plant that grants everlasting life to a California valley filled with code manipulators who drink chemistry all day—Soylent on the rocks, anyone?—the quest for eternity has never been far from view regardless of how elusive it always proves to be. Once doctors figured out how to physically represent these changes, the cost was never a concern.
Yet this frantic uptick in surgeries coincides with all-time high rates of anxiety and depression. The pool Narcissus couldn’t turn away from displayed a hazy outline of a human, dynamic and fluid as the rippling of lakes tends to be. Now we erase ripples, on our phone, on our flesh, without questioning the psychological cost those deletions demand.
The quest for presence—with our imperfections, with what we truly are as animals—seems even more evasive, a fact we often don’t realize until too late. Hospice dwellers desire connection, health, and freedom from pain, not fuller lips. While difficult to pinpoint the exact date we went from judging a person on the character of their actions to the character of their forehead, at some point we did, and that judgment is toxic. We pay the price every time we look into a mirror and say, “if only.”
Wrinkles mark time like rivulets carve territory. In an era defined by femininist rights and an inspiring rush toward recognizing the unity of all races, falling victim to the greedy demands of our ego benefits no one. We should wear our skin proudly, as protectors of memories and champions of equality. To hate history is to loathe identity. That’s no way to live, no way to age, no way to die. Forgetting, Neruda wrote, is so long.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
New anthropological research suggests our ancestors enjoyed long slumbers.
- Neanderthal bone fragments discovered in northern Spain mimic hibernating animals like cave bears.
- Thousands of bone fragments, dating back 400,000 years, were discovered in this "pit of bones" 30 years ago.
- The researchers speculate that this physiological function, if true, could prepare us for extended space travel.
Humans have a terrible sense of time. We think in moments, not eons, which accounts for a number of people that still don't believe in evolutionary theory: we simply can't imagine ourselves any differently than we are today.
Thankfully, scientists and researchers have vast imaginations. Their findings often depend on creative problem-solving. Anthropologists are especially adept at this skill, as their job entails imagining a prehistoric world in which humans and our forebears were very different creatures.
A new paper, published in the journal L'Anthropologie, takes a hard look at ancient bone health and arrives at a surprising conclusion: Neanderthals (and possibly early humans) might have endured long, harsh winters by hibernating.
Adaptability is the key to survival. Certain endotherms evolved the ability to depress their metabolism for months at a time; their body temperature and metabolic rate lowered while their breathing and heart rate dropped to nearly imperceptible levels. This handy technique solved a serious resource management problem, as food supplies were notoriously scarce during the frozen months.
While today the wellness industry eschews fat, it has long had an essential evolutionary function: it keeps us alive during times of food scarcity. As autumn months pass, large mammals become hyperphagic (experiencing intense hunger followed by overeating) and store nutrients in fat deposits; smaller animals bury food nearby for when they need a snack. This strategy is critical as hibernating animals can lose over a quarter of their body weight during winter.
For this paper, Antonis Bartsiokas and Juan-Luis Arsuaga, both in the Department of History and Ethnology at Democritus University of Thrace, scoured through remains of a "pit of bones" in northern Spain. In 1976, archaeologists found a 50-foot shaft leading down into a cave in Atapuerca, where thousands of bone fragments have since been discovered. Dating back 400,000 years—some of the fragments may be as old as 600,000 years—researchers believe the bodies were intentionally buried in this cave.
Evidence of ancient human hibernation / human hibernation for space travel | Dr Antonis Bartsiokas
While the fragments have been well studied in the intervening decades, Arsuaga (who led an early excavation in Atapuerca) and Bartsiokas noticed something odd about the bones: they displayed signs of seasonal variations. These proto-humans appear to have experienced annual bone growth disruption, which is indicative of hibernating species.
In fact, the remains of cave bears were also found in this pit, increasing the likelihood that the burial site was reserved for species that shared common features. This could be the result of a dearth of food for bears and Neanderthals alike. The researchers write that modern northerners don't need to sleep for months at a time; an abundance of fish and reindeer didn't exist in Spain, as they do in the Arctic. They write,
"The aridification of Iberia then could not have provided enough fat-rich food for the people of Sima during the harsh winter—making them resort to cave hibernation."
The notion of hibernating humans is appealing, especially to those in cold climates, but some experts don't want to put the cart before the horse. Large mammals don't engage in textbook hibernation; their deep sleep is known as a "torpor." Even then, the demands of human-sized brains could have been too large for extended periods of slumber.
Still, as we continually discover our animalistic origins to better understand how we evolved, the researchers note the potential value of this research.
"The present work provides an innovative approach to the physiological mechanisms of metabolism in early humans that could help determine the life cycle and physiology of extinct human species."
Bartsiokas speculates that this ancient mechanism could be coopted for space travel in the future. If the notion of hibernating humans sounds far-fetched, the idea has been contemplated for years, as NASA began funding research on this topic in 2014. As the saying goes, everything old is new again.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
It is impossible for science to arrive at ultimate truths, but functional truths are good enough.
- What is truth? This is a very tricky question, trickier than many would like to admit.
- Science does arrive at what we can call functional truth, that is, when it focuses on what something does as opposed to what something is. We know how gravity operates, but not what gravity is, a notion that has changed over time and will probably change again.
- The conclusion is that there are not absolute final truths, only functional truths that are agreed upon by consensus. The essential difference is that scientific truths are agreed upon by factual evidence, while most other truths are based on belief.
Does science tell the truth? The answer to this question is not as simple as it seems, and my 13.8 colleague Adam Frank took a look at it in his article about the complementarity of knowledge. There are many levels of complexity to what truth is or means to a person or a community. Why?
First, "truth" itself is hard to define or even to identify. How do you know for sure that someone is telling you the truth? Do you always tell the truth? In groups, what may be considered true to a culture with a given set of moral values may not be true in another. Examples are easy to come by: the death penalty, abortion rights, animal rights, environmentalism, the ethics of owning weapons, etc.
At the level of human relations, truth is very convoluted. Living in an age where fake news has taken center stage only corroborates this obvious fact. However, not knowing how to differentiate between what is true and what is not leads to fear, insecurity, and ultimately, to what could be called worldview servitude — the subservient adherence to a worldview proposed by someone in power. The results, as the history of the 20th century has shown extensively, can be catastrophic.
Proclamations of final or absolute truths, even in science, shouldn't be trusted.
The goal of science, at least on paper, is to arrive at the truth without recourse to any belief or moral system. Science aims to go beyond the human mess so as to be value-free. The premise here is that Nature doesn't have a moral dimension, and that the goal of science is to describe Nature the best possible way, to arrive at something we could call the "absolute truth." The approach is a typical heir to the Enlightenment notion that it is possible to take human complications out of the equation and have an absolute objective view of the world. However, this is a tall order.
It is tempting to believe that science is the best pathway to truth because, to a spectacular extent, science does triumph at many levels. You trust driving your car because the laws of mechanics and thermodynamics work. NASA scientists and engineers just managed to have the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter — the first man-made device to fly over another planet — hover above the Martian surface all by itself.
We can use the laws of physics to describe the results of countless experiments to amazing levels of accuracy, from the magnetic properties of materials to the position of your car in traffic using GPS locators. In this restricted sense, science does tell the truth. It may not be the absolute truth about Nature, but it's certainly a kind of pragmatic, functional truth at which the scientific community arrives by consensus based on the shared testing of hypotheses and results.
What is truth?
Credit: Sergey Nivens / 242235342
But at a deeper level of scrutiny, the meaning of truth becomes intangible, and we must agree with the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus who declared, around 400 years BCE, that "truth is in the depths." (Incidentally, Democritus predicted the existence of the atom, something that certainly exists in the depths.)
A look at a dictionary reinforces this view. "Truth: the quality of being true." Now, that's a very circular definition. How do we know what is true? A second definition: "Truth: a fact or belief that is accepted as true." Acceptance is key here. A belief may be accepted to be true, as is the case with religious faith. There is no need for evidence to justify a belief. But note that a fact as well can be accepted as true, even if belief and facts are very different things. This illustrates how the scientific community arrives at a consensus of what is true by acceptance. Sufficient factual evidence supports that a statement is true. (Note that what defines sufficient factual evidence is also accepted by consensus.) At least until we learn more.
Take the example of gravity. We know that an object in free fall will hit the ground, and we can calculate when it does using Galileo's law of free fall (in the absence of friction). This is an example of "functional truth." If you drop one million rocks from the same height, the same law will apply every time, corroborating the factual acceptance of a functional truth, that all objects fall to the ground at the same rate irrespective of their mass (in the absence of friction).
But what if we ask, "What is gravity?" That's an ontological question about what gravity is and not what it does. And here things get trickier. To Galileo, it was an acceleration downward; to Newton a force between two or more massive bodies inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them; to Einstein the curvature of spacetime due to the presence of mass and/or energy. Does Einstein have the final word? Probably not.
Is there an ultimate scientific truth?
Final or absolute scientific truths assume that what we know of Nature can be final, that human knowledge can make absolute proclamations. But we know that this can't really work, for the very nature of scientific knowledge is that it is incomplete and contingent on the accuracy and depth with which we measure Nature with our instruments. The more accuracy and depth our measurements gain, the more they are able to expose the cracks in our current theories, as I illustrated last week with the muon magnetic moment experiments.
So, we must agree with Democritus, that truth is indeed in the depths and that proclamations of final or absolute truths, even in science, shouldn't be trusted. Fortunately, for all practical purposes — flying airplanes or spaceships, measuring the properties of a particle, the rates of chemical reactions, the efficacy of vaccines, or the blood flow in your brain — functional truths do well enough.
Using urinals, psychological collages, and animated furniture to shock us into reality.
- Dada is a provocative and surreal art movement born out of the madness of World War I.
- Tzara, a key Dada theorist, says Dada seeks "to confuse and upset, to shake and jolt" people from their comfort zones.
- Dada, as all avant-garde art, faces a key problem in how to stay true to its philosophy.
In a world gone mad, what can the few sane people left do? What can someone say when there are no words that seem up to the job? How can anyone hope to express ideas so terrible when doing so will only reduce those ideas?
These are some of the things that inspired the Dada movement, and in its absurd, surreal, and chaotic nonsense, we find the voice of the voiceless.
The origin of Dadaism
Dada was a response to the madness of World War I. Reasonable, intelligent, and sensitive people looked at the blood and mud graveyards of the trenches and wondered how any meaning or goodness could ever be found again. How can someone make sense of a world where millions of young, happy, hopeful men were scythed down in a spray of bullets? How could life go back to normal when returning soldiers, blinded and disfigured from gas, lay homeless in the streets? Out of this awful revulsion, there came one bitter voice, and it said: "Everything is nonsense."
Dada is the art of the nihilist. It smashes accepted wisdom, challenges norms and values, and offends, upsets, and provokes us to re-examine everything.
And so, the Dada movement expressed itself in absurdity. Tzara, the closest you get to a Dadaist philosopher, put it like this: "Like everything in life, Dada is useless. Dada is without pretension, as life should be." Dada rejects all systems, all philosophy, all definite answers, and all truth. It is the living embrace of contradictions and nonsense. It seeks "to confuse and upset people, to shake and jolt". It aims to shout down the "shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners," when actually "everything happens in a completely idiotic way."
In short, Dada is a response to the world when all the usual methods have broken down. It's the recognition that dinner party conversations, Hollywood blockbusters, and Silicon Valley are not how life actually is. This is a false reality and order, like some kind of veneer.
The Dada response to life is to embrace the personal and passionate madness of it all, where "the intensity of a personality is transposed directly, clearly into the work." It's to recognize the unique position of an artist, who can convey ideas and feelings in a way that goes beyond normal understanding. Art goes straight to the soul, but the intensity of it all can be hard to "enjoy" in the strictest sense.
Where is this Dada?
For instance, Dada is seen in the poems of Hugo Ball who wrote in meaningless foreign-sounding words. It's in Hausmann, who wrote works in disconnected phonemes. It's found in Duchamp's iconoclastic "Fountain" that sought to question what art or an artist really meant. It's in Hans Richter's short film "Ghost before Breakfast," which has an incoherent montage of images, loosely connected by the theme of inanimate objects in revolt. And, it's in Kurt Schwitters' "psychological collages" which present fragments of objects, juxtaposed together.
Dada is intended to shock. It's an artistic jolt asking, or demanding, that the viewers reorient themselves in some way. It is designed to make us feel uncomfortable and does not make for easy appreciation. It's only when we're thrown so drastically outside of our comfort zone in this way that Dada asks us to question how things are. It shakes us out of a conformist stupor to look afresh at things.
The paradox of Dadaism
Of course, like all avant-garde art, Dada needs to address one major problem: how do you stay so provocative, so radical, and so anti-establishment when you also seek success? How can maverick rebels stay so as they get a mortgage and want a good school for their kids? The problem is that young, inventive, and idealistic artists are inevitably sucked into the world of profit and commodity.
As Grayson Perry, a British modern artist, wrote: "What starts as a creative revolt soon becomes co-opted as the latest way to make money," and what was once fresh and challenging "falls away to reveal a predatory capitalist robot." With Dada, how long can someone actually live in a world of nonsense and nihilistic absurdity?
But there will always be new blood to keep movements like Dada going. As the revolutionaries of yesterday become the rich mansion-owners of today, there will be hot, young things to come and take up the mantle. There will always be something to challenge and questions to be asked. So, art movements like Dada will always be in the vanguard.
Dada is the art of the nihilist. It smashes accepted wisdom, challenges norms and values, and offends, upsets, and provokes us to re-examine everything. It's an absurd art form that reflects the reality it perceives — that life is nothing more than a dissonant patchwork of egos floating in an abyss of nothing.